TULARE -- They were down, but never out.
Bakersfield Christian took plenty of potentially knockout shots at the hands of top-seeded Tulare-Mission Oak during Friday's Central Section Division IV championship game.
But playing with a fierce determination, the Eagles took the blows and kept on battling.
That never-say-die mentality ultimately paid off, as No. 3 BCHS rallied from an early 20-0 deficit to claim a thrilling 35-34 victory over the Hawks at Bob Mathias Stadium.
"When you start working out at the end of January, it's hard to give up," BCHS coach Jerald Pierucci said. "It's just a testament to our kids that they've bought-in so much. They never ever stopped believing."
Matt Smith scored on a fourth-and-goal, one-yard run with 3:07 remaining in the game and then the Eagles defense shut down Mission Oak's high-powered offense to clinch the victory.
"We all wanted this this game so much," Smith said. "We had a big chip on our shoulder from last year, losing to Wasco (in the championship game). ... After falling behind 20-0, we didn't give up. We didn't say 'oh that's the end.' We rallied-up and we got the win."
It's third third section title for BCHS, which won back-to-back Division V championships in 2007 and 2008.
The Eagles title chances didn't appear likely much for much of the game as they trailed until Smith finally put them over the top with his third TD run.
Leading 34-28 and the clock winding down, Mission Oak was 52 yards away from all but sealing its first-ever section championship in any sport, when BCHS senior linebacker Grant Bauma intercepted a pass by Hawks quarterback Trey McJunkin and ran it back 32 yards.
Moments later Smith cruised into the end zone with a pitch from BCHS signal caller Brandon Jones.
"I saw the guy behind me and I just went underneath it," Bauma said of his interception. "I just tried not to drop it and ran for my life."
Smith finished with 117 yards rushing, putting the junior over 5,000 yards from scrimmage for his high school career.
"If there's any doubt who the best back in the valley is, I don't know what to say," Pierucci said. "Because Smith just put this whole offense on his back, a long with the offensive line and carried us."
Elijah Porchia had 245 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries for Mission Oak, which was held to just seven points in the second half.
Jones, who came into the game with a BCHS single-season record of 47 touchdown passes, completed 15-of-29 throws for 182 yards and a pair of scores.
He also had three interceptions but was able to guide BCHS to five touchdowns against a defense that hadn't allowed more than 21 points in a game all season.
"I didn't play a great game myself but my offense backed me up," Jones said. "Our defense gave up a couple of scores quick. That's just our season. We come back and we're stronger than ever. I just love my team."
The win, Bakersfield Christian's 11th in a row after starting the season 0-2, puts it in good position to be selected for a Division IV state playoff berth.
Mission Oak, the only undefeated team in the section coming into the game, led 27-14 after a wild first half.
The Hawks jump out to a quick 20-0 lead, scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions while holding BCHS without a first down until midway through the first quarter.
Porchia did most of the early damage for Mission Oak, ripping off first-quarter touchdown runs of 51 and 73 yards.
The Hawks 2,000-yard rusher had 149 yards on the ground during the game's first 12 minutes.
BCHS recovered from its slow start to cut the Mission Oak deficit to 20-14 with 7:07 left in the first half on a spectacular 27 yard touchdown run by Matt Smith.
Smith took a handoff from Jones, ran through a tackler and then did a 360-spin to break free for the score.
But after forcing a Hawks' three-and-out, Jones floated a high pass over the middle that was intercepted by Trent Reed.
Two plays later Trey McJunkin connected with LeAndre Jefferson for a 49-yard touchdown pass to extend the Hawks advantage to 27-14.
The pass was under thrown but Jefferson was able to come back for the ball, tip it up to himself and then race into the end zone.